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Lets Get Physical, Physical…

“Hockey is a physical sport” a line used time and time and time again by both its promoters and its detractors. Be it by those defending an action on the ice or by those who feel there just isn’t enough action. But needless to say in a sport with such physical contact there are always going to be conversation inducing incidents.

In the last couple of weeks such incidents have dominated forums, press releases and blogs concerning my own team, the Belfast Giants. It was only a matter of weeks ago that a much watched hit between Benoit Doucet and Sam Zajac in Braehead took over pages and pages of debate across the league, many initially calling for a ban for the Belfast Giants forward. Subsequent slow motions and assessments caused opinions to change, to an extent, and the league itself saw fit not to impose a ban, but to expunge the penalty awarded by referee Moray Hanson on Doucet at the time from the Canadians disciplinary record.

As such a lot of talk about “retribution” circled last weekends return game between the two sides, but the outcome was one no one wanted.

I am not going into too much depth on the rights and wrongs of what took place other than to say my sympathies do fall with the linesmen who, despite undertaking what I see as correct initial action, due to Zajac being flat out on the ice from a Ryan Crane hit and Doucet moving toward him in that position, they became embroiled in an unfortunate sequences of events which has now led to the end of Doucet’s season through injury. There was no malice in the events and the loss of Doucet is certainly frustrating, but to point fingers at the linesmen who, in their correct initial actions, were doing a thankless job, is to ignore what can certainly also be deemed a “grey area”.

I am sorry for Doucet’s injury. And certainly wish him a speedy recovery. He has been an excellent servant to the Giants in his all too brief period in our shirt.

Since the incident the shouts have been about “let them fight” and “Linesmen never let the players do what is an important part of the game”. This has led to me thinking about the initial statement of this blog.

“Hockey is a physical sport”

Is it? Or is it a “Skilled sport with physical tactics”. No doubt folk will claim there is no difference but in my opinion there is. And it’s this difference that polarises the approach to the sport, not just by fans but by many in the wider media.

I make, nor have ever made, no bones about what I prefer in the sport. The beauty of a tic-tac-toe play, watching an offensive d-man picking a pin point pass to perfectly placed one-timer from an advancing forward, that perfectly timed poke-check when it looks like the breakaway forward is destined to score. But this isn’t to say I don’t appreciate the physicality employed in the sport. I adore a brilliantly executed hip check. Taking out a forward mid-ice because his head is down, perfect example of how physical tactics are part and parcel of the game.

And yes, fighting is certainly part of those tactics, but I do have issues in its application. There is a distinct difference between “Fighting for the Game” and “Fighting for the Grandstand”, examples of both have been seen at the Odyssey over the years gone by.

Physicality in the game is a tactic of intimidation. Putting the skilful players on their toes, looking over their shoulders and keeping out of the way of someone they feel may hurt or, worse, injure them.

The need to pay attention to the intimidation, and not to the game objective, goal scoring.

The fighting I wholly prefer in the game is that which spawns from the ongoing action of the match. The kick back from a skilful forward tired of being picked on. The enforcer sent on to change momentum and show support for his team mates is something that seems to have been lost in recent years from the Elite League. The arrival of the so-called “Sherriff” Sean McMorrow was a sad turn down the road of ‘fighting for fighting sake’.

The repetitive articles in the paper ‘calling out’ forthcoming opposition tough guys like Voth and Knight got tiresome. The grandstanding like David Haye in order to goad a fight became nothing but tiresome. In this there was no real tactic. The player didn’t have that in him. Empty threats of player intimidation in the press were never fulfilled. It was lost on me what he brought to the game outside of a “fight a night” promise, further ammunition to the anti-hockey elements of the media and beyond who saw us not as sportsfans, but as those who wave foam fingers at WWE style ‘Sports Entertainment’.

This caused immense amounts of frustration to those of us who had seen the job of an enforcer/fighter/tough guy taken to it’s zenith on Odyssey ice by the likes of Paxton Schulte and Paul Kruse. Two players who could intimidate the opposition, put pucks in the net and also stick up for their team mates when they needed to. But if I was to name one of the toughest players to wear the Giants shirt, Paul Ferone would be among Kruse and Schulte without a doubt.

A player who demonstrated that sometimes size doesn’t matter. He’d throw in a late hit, a slash behind the play and agitate like few others, but would also surprise, that when the gloves hit the floor he’d probably be one of the favourites to take the tilt. Fist waving furiously he knew that his actions needed backing up, and he had that ability.

An element of physical play that over the seasons have been sparse from the Giants line up. Pat Bateman and more recently Daryl Lloyd have displayed elements that bring both energy to the team and entertainment to the crowd. While Adam Keefe this season has also proven that you don’t need a ‘fight a night’ to please the crowd with physical play.

So from that we come to those in the stands, and the entertainment that the physical tactics of the game bring. I’m not so naïve as to believe fighting has little role in the sport, its need is palpable when the conditions are correct and few things bring the crowd to their feet more readily than a punch up. But in a game dominated by persistent physical play the crowd can be taken and kept on the edge of their seat, waiting for the moment when one of the teams crack and lash out. And even if they don’t a feisty game can leave the punters happy, provided of course those tactics brought the win.

Can fighting be used as a “bums on seats” means? Most certainly, but can it keep them there? Slapshot is a great film, but is it really a means to educate the running of a hockey club? Not really. In my opinion the bums return to the seats due to success. While the fights may be the opening of the door, the skill and success of the game should be the means to hold that door ajar.

No doubt I’ll be taken as a ‘hockey snob’ and not for the first time. I don’t profess to be any authority in the sport, and not least the physical tactics of it. For that I bow to those who have experienced it first hand, or someone like Vic Silverwood in Cardiff who has studied it in depth. Nor do I claim to hide behind the defence of ‘It’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it’; I am certainly open to the debate on the forums or twitter.

The subject is such a widely written about one I feel I can’t do it any real justice in this modest blog.

I do feel however that sometimes the physicality aspect of the game is misunderstood to *be* the game.

And while it has its role within the plexi-glass walls, it is but a means to the objective.

Putting a vulcanised rubber disc through a rectangle of metal and ice, by fair means or, sometimes, foul.

Everyday’s A School Day..

Pre-season is as much about learning lessons as it is giving those desperate for just a taste of hockey that tease before the season proper begins. It’s when both teams and fans can settle in on what they want for the season. Assess what’s in front of them and bring opinion on what, if anything, needs to change.

This past weekend brought the visit of the Nottingham Panthers to the Odyssey Arena. By way of silverware, probably last season’s most successful team. While the league, once again, eluded them, the Challenge Cup and Playoff trophy reside in the NIC trophy cabinet. A needle to those Giants fans who hold a special place in their derision for the Nottinghamshire side.

So for the Panthers to return to the scene of the Challenge Cup victory was one that brought many a patron in the arena to forget the purpose of the weekend and focus on battle with what many take as a rival.

Both teams were lacking key players over the weekend, Kowalski, a key part of last seasons achievement for the Panthers had yet to arrive to the UK, while the likes of Garside and, later due to injury, Pelle were missing for the home team. So it was a chance for others to stake their claim in the side. Not least in Belfast where the availability of an 11th import would threaten the safety of a regular first team start.

Sometimes life gets in the way of hockey, as shocking as that may sound. For me this meant attending a good friends wedding on the Saturday and remaining aware for the buzz of my phone. While it may have drawn a *tut* or two from my significant other, I was thankful for those bringing me the good news of a Giants 2-1 home victory and further fuelled my enthusiasm for my first Odyssey trip of the season the next night.

Watching a new Giants side never gets any less difficult despite over 10 years experience. Picking up numbers, playing styles, positioning, shooting side and trying to understand who has been given which role or special teams berth is something that can take a few games, never mind picking it up in an immediate way during a pre-season match. But I usually pick my targets and hope that they provide the underpinning confidence in their play that the statistics we fawn over pre-season suggest.

You can’t draw too much from games like these as, like I say, they are all about learning lessons. The first combat after under a week of training camp is not a game to pin seasons on. So to take either the first games victory or second games unfortunate 4-2 defeat as a means to a seasons end is to misjudge what the purpose of the weekend is.

What I witnessed on Sunday brought a number of positive and negative responses from those around me in the “usual corner”. Some warranted, some not so. But to take any opinion at this stage is to merely vocalise what folk see as potential shortcomings and lessons that they hope the man in the suit on the bench sees also.

While this Giants team do lack in stature, this initially didn’t seem to effect their game. The grit I had hoped would be apparent was certainly displayed, not least on the British line which appeared to be a target for Lepine, Neilson and co. However Robert Dowd ensured a message was to be sent back with them, confidently sticking up for himself when roughed up by a number of the visiting antagonists.

The Giants, in Daryl Lloyd, have quite the thorn when it comes to pushing the buttons of the opposition. Constantly on the move, constantly in the face of forwards. He was entertaining to watch both on and, more importantly, behind the play where his actions would cause uproar on the Nottingham bench, and draw pointing and choice words from Rick Strachan and, on one occasion, a binned Corey Neilson.

Lloyd will make few friends across the league, but his slash’s, glove punches, late hits, trips various other behind the play antics will simultaneously delight the Giants fans while infuriating the opposition numbers. I have no doubt he’ll pick up penalty minutes galore, but if his actions bring retaliations that lead to, for example, a five minute major for cross checking for the opposition like they did on Sunday with Stevie Lee, then the Giants will have little complaint. A player I’m certainly looking forward to seeing more of.

One very noticeable and positive trait the Giants displayed on Sunday was a strong forecheck on the penalty kill. Something I don’t think I’ve seen done effectively on Odyssey since George Awada hung up his skates. The Giants played a very high line against the Panthers powerplay unit and weren’t afraid of being caught short at the back with all 4 outskaters pressing then back-checking as the clock ticked down on the penalty. I certainly hope this isn’t a flash in the pan moment for these tactics.

It is often a mis-given belief that criticism this early in the season is ill-placed. But there is a difference between out-right criticism and causes for concern or learning. These games are put in place to highlight the shortcomings more than they are to display the strengths. With that the Giants did show moments that no doubt went immediately into the notebooks of Christiansen and Stewart.

Christiansen himself admitted that last season’s powerplay, while not statistically poor, certainly left a lot to be desired with regards of form. This year he has put in place a number of players with vast experience in quarterbacking a revised powerplay ethos. This certainly needs further refining. As an example, a 5 minute major against a 16-year old 3rd choice netminder produced a single goal and a the conceding of a short handed goal. While it is easy to point fingers, I will take into account the fatigue of this being at the back end of the weekends fixtures, it is merely a point for improvement many would hope would be addressed in the season to come.

And so the week counts down to the beginning of the season proper. From the visit of the double cup winning Panthers, to the arrival of the league champion Steelers. Christiansen’s opening fixtures could not be a more stern test of the team he has put together.

The scorelines of the weekend past mean next to nothing, it wasnt about who beat who; but how the team can gel on the ice. About who works well in what system and what line. The coaches and the fans will have made up their own minds and as the season approaches hour by hour, the Belfast Giants will be refining their game with another title challenge in mind.

Will the lessons of last season be learned… We’ll see come April.

The Long Wait Is Almost Over

Life runs in cycles. Fashion, Music, Movies and Sport all turn 360 degrees time and time again as our lives go on. Every April we revel in the victories or defeats the ice hockey season has given us, and by the end of August we sit in anticipation of what’s to come. Those past machinations are merely confined to the memory banks for use only in statistical and emotional comparisons.

Once again we have reached that point of eager anticipation; the first drop of the first pre-season puck is merely hours away while hockey fans both casual and fanatical dust off the shirts and plan their pre-match routines with friends. Some of which they won’t have even seen for many a day, as life returned to mundane normality between April and September.

Piece by piece the puzzle of this year’s teams have been put together, with some still needing completion. Preparations are made on the ice for the forthcoming season; PR is distributed to draw in fans to the arena for the first time, or the first time in a long time. Mascots are drawn from cupboards, programmes are printed, cheerleaders rehearse and merchandise is laid out for sale.

But to the fan, spending his or her hard earned cash on a small piece of card that would gain them entry; the peripherals are but that, superfluous to the main event. The rush of noise as a new band of recruits takes to the ice wearing the crest that represents those in the stands as much as those on the ice who came before them.

I approach this season with enthusiasm that I didn’t believe I’d have back in April. I should have known better. Weary from a season that gave so much in promise but returned so little in product, I felt I could happily tone down my emotional involvement in the sport and look to other things. Golf took precedent in the summer months, running, surfing, Glastonbury and working to pay for this fun all took my mind away from hockey.

But not for long.

As the signings rolled in, one by one I started to get more interested. One by one I began to become more enthusiastic. While the initial signings got no more than a glancing look, as more and more were brought in I found myself looking a little longer at each player who would this season be donning the red, white and teal shirts of the Belfast Giants.

Like a drug I’d been weaned off, I indulged just once, then again, and again, and again. And now I sit awaiting a flight to Belfast, yes I have other social plans, but I also already have my tickets to one of the pre-season friendlies.

Why?

A number of reasons really. Mainly because, despite my protestations, I love this sport; the speed, the skill and the physicality. I also enjoy the people around the sport. A tight-knit community of fans who would know most of each other by name, if that be first name alone, and only have one topic of passionate conversation, knowing what aspect each enjoys and arguing till the cows come home any contrary opinion.

Another reason would be the fact I have been very impressed with the team put together this season. A mixture of experience, speed, talent and grit. From Rebek’s vast European hockey experience in defence, to the outright grit of a player like Lloyd. I feel this seasons team has such potential to be one of the best.

Undoubtedly in Peacock, Dowd and Garside the Giants have one of the best forward line British cores in their short history, if not the best in this years league. While the familiarity of a player like Walton alongside the development of Gareth Roberts, and maybe one or two other local lads who have trained pre-season, brings pride in what my home-land can produce.

I also take into account that for the first time in a long long time, I have looked at the “hard man” signing and held up a lot of hope for his role. Adam Keefe may be that franchise “enforcer” the Giants faithful have craved since the retirement of the number 27.

The Giants organisation have been hard at work looking at angles to promote and encourage the excitement leading to these opening games and with the visit of the Nottingham Panthers. Those fans who are long in the tooth need no further encouragement than to stand and shout for their men on the ice against a team for whom they hold little love. A perfect nemesis for an opening stanza.

The season proper is only a week or so away, the opening games are only days away.

My shirt resides in my hand-luggage, my ticket in my wallet as I sit feverishly waiting for the gate of my flight to be called. A sleepless night awaits….

Could this be the season?

Or did I say that last year?

These things run in cycles, after all.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Hockey as a sport is many things. Physical, fast, exciting, frustrating, elating and entertaining. It’s tough to see why it is sometimes so hard to market in this country.

Hockey, here in the UK, can be summed up by another word; minority. It’s an unfortunate truth that since the “heyday” of hockey in the UK the attendances around many rinks have fallen off significantly.

I blogged a few months ago about the difference between the arena and the rink teams being stark. This, unfortunately, came to a head only a few weeks ago when Newcastle Vipers Chairman, Paddy O’Connor, issued a statement on behalf of the Tyneside club highlighting not only the hardship undergone in recent times, but also issued a scathing attack on the League as a whole for the lack of support given to the struggling outfit.

As fans we only, to an extent, get hear-say and assumptions. Rumours passed through from team to team about the haves and the have-nots. Newcastle, by that definition, are most certainly a ‘have-not’. Their days at Whitley Bay are a far cry from the team that joined the Elite League.

The Newcastle Vipers that moved from the BNL were a team that pushed my own Belfast Giants to the brink as they chased the league title, this in a season the Giants boasted Theo Fleury in their ranks. They were a side playing out of a City Centre based arena, flying high and went on to take a Playoff Championship, beating Belfast on the way there. So what changed?

O’Connor’s statement sights assurances made by the league on their arrival and the much vaunted “Gate Levy” agreement makes a reappearance. We witnessed a similar statement from Scott Neill only days before the 2009 Playoffs Finals weekend as rumours spread like wildfire through the masses gathered at Nottingham. A series of teams were not best pleased with the on going situation and were preparing to leave the EIHL. A 6 team league and the various connotations that would entail was touted and protested against.

How true this situation was to coming to fruition is anyone’s guess. An interview I undertook with Dave Simms only weeks afterwards dispelled the possibility ever to have existed. But the league did lose two teams that summer. Manchester and Basingstoke both sighting their financial status for their move to the EPL. In this bloggers opinion the latter had a better case for this than the former, whose move I believe had as much to do with a trophy hunt as undoubted financial rectification.

However, back to Newcastle, despite being alongside Edinburgh one of the teams unhappy with the situation at the time, they remained within the EIHL hoping for reform. O’Connor’s statement seems to have indicated such reform has not taken place. The rich want to get richer while the poor want their piece also.

So I ask again, what has happened in Newcastle? Has their decline been a series of unfortunate business decisions? Have there been, as they state, too many broken promises at league level? Has the “financial climate” taken its told at the gate and subsequently in the P/L of the Vipers Organisation? There are many questions that few know the answer to.

In my time living in the North East I got to know a lot of the guys who worked, and continue to work, behind the scenes at the Vipers. Few work as hard as I have seen from them to market and push the sport on the limited funds they strive to work from.

The Vipers plight drew both support and quite a bit of undeserved derision, not least from the East Midlands where many fans scoffed and moaned about ‘begging plates’. Various bloggers and commentators mouthed off about their promotion not being sufficient and that they would learn a lesson from the Panthers organisation.

I find such comments so incredibly short sighted and naive it’s untrue. The Vipers PR machine is one that has worked non-stop over the last year and beyond. Few days have gone by this season without an update through the website, using one of their social media streams or a call to the local and national press.

However it is word of mouth, encouragement and experiences that retain a fan base, a point our friends on Lower Parliament Street would do well to recognise. The Vipers have suffered for the move to Whitley, enforced through an arena organisation that made their options very limited and ultimately untenable.

The comparison down the east coast goes a long way to show the vast differences in hockey in this country. The Nottingham Panthers draw in undoubtedly the highest attendance on a regular basis, yet this belies their PR system. They retain a severely outdated website, produce press releases rife with errors, they lack any form of official social media presence, they lack a web-cast either visual or audio and their printed media is usually at the often narrow-minded and vitriolic pen of Mick Holland in the Nottingham Evening Post.

I concede that in Chris Ellis they have a valuable commodity. To retain a fan who can contribute through mainstream media (in this case the BBC) is something few teams can boast. Seth Bennett in Sheffield and Ollie Williams in Bracknell are two others who fight in their newsrooms, not always successfully, to push further hockey exposure on the masses. The Belfast Giants, long considered one of the fabled “big 4”, by contrast, rarely feature on BBC Northern Irelands television sports coverage.

It has come down, in many cases, to the fans to promote the club, and this is something the Vipers realised long ago. In a similar way to the Manchester Phoenix, they rely on volunteers to produce the off ice experience. From programme writers to online content. They recently added the talents of Katy Parles to their media team, after her well written “Confessions of a Hockey Novice” blog gained plaudits across the social media lines.

Likewise in Manchester, Ben Knight’s podcast began life as an unofficial output before his hard work was recognised and he was asked to add player’s interviews and create an official media output for the Phoenix organisation.

In contrast the excellent Panthers blog “The Cats Whiskers”, back in its form as a printed fanzine, was banned from being sold at the NIC by Gary Moran due to his in-ability to control the output and opinions it provided, not agreeing with any negative connotations within despite on-ice performances. Rather than embrace the abilities and willingness to promote the club, it was expelled.

This is not aimed as a blog to vilify the Nottingham Panthers, far from it; their organisation has been most successful off the ice despite on-ice failings. However they have benefited from assets many, less affluent, organisations would dream of. Not least a home set smack-bang in the city centre, fed by buses, trams and even the cities mainline train station within easy walking distance allowing fans to flock to their state of the art venue. Substitute that for an aging out of town venue where Sunday buses don’t always run past the final buzzer of the hockey game and would such dedicated fans still attend on such a regular basis? Something we will never know.

I wish the Vipers well in their quest to sustain top flight hockey in the north-east. This league, despite some narrow minded views, would be lacking without a franchise somewhere where hockey has been so successful in years gone by. The Belfast Giants this week proved that sometimes the silliest things can promote your brand world-wide without that even being the intended audience, but the hard work of those whose aim is to help the sport and the team they love should not be underestimated, underappreciated and certainly not derided, without it the league as it stands would have vanished a long time ago

Know Your (So-Called) Enemy

Rivalries are not as common place in sport as many may think. Some are long-standing; some are spurred on by events in games gone by. Many are developed through a chase for glory, while far too many are the invention of the fans or media with no basis in actuality. 

I overheard a discussion on Saturday in which the Nottingham Panthers were described to a new fan as one of the Belfast Giants “most bitter rivals”. This is not true. But it did get me thinking over the weekend as to whether the Giants have had any real ‘rivals’ or basis for a continued ‘rivalry’ in their time on the ice. 

I certainly have little love for the Nottingham Panthers, stretching back to the days of Barry Nieckar, Jason Clarke and even Clayton Norris, whose actions alone in one game had the stewards advise me that my language “was not in keeping with the family atmosphere” such was my fervent reaction to his goon tactics.   

But the Nottingham Panthers main rivals are the Sheffield Steelers, always have and will be. A rivalry must exist to a point where both sets of fans have the same level of high disdain for the other teams mere existence, never mind ability. So while many like myself may be short on love for the Panthers, the level of pseudo-ill feeling is most certainly not replicated from the East Midlands. 

The Coventry Blaze and Newcastle Vipers have both been party to events opposing the Giants that led to short term conflict both on ice and in the press, but neither developed so far for such emotion to continue year on year. As such even now with the Vipers and Blaze struggling to match achieved performance levels of times gone by, the emotional involvement of many Giants fans toward these teams, so potent when these flashpoints were met, would not be of a level that matched that today.  

Schadenfreude would come into play for such a change in fortune. The fall of a once dominant team would be a source of humour and glee for a true rival, but the current plight of Newcastle and failure of Coventry to reach heights of former glories do not draw many, if any, wry smiles from around the Odyssey, most lie in mere apathy. 

So do the Giants have any actual rivals? In my opinion, no.  

Only one true rivalry lies in the EIHL, the border between Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire tarnished many a time by conflicts that date back years in the past. Names that draw a smile or a grimace from the faithful facing across the divide. Ken Priestly, for example, is a name that would being joy to many eyes in South Yorkshire, while simultaneously turning the stomachs of those on Lower Parliament Street. Such a potent example does not, unfortunately, exist with Belfast. 

Location has a great deal to do with this, proximity leads to many travelling fans, a fiery atmosphere and develops a rivalry to its very hilt. Belfast fall short on that through no fault of their own, but a possibility may have once existed in the form of Ayr Scottish Eagles. Sadly, however, we were never to see if a rivalry could be formed out of the ashes of a Challenge Cup entanglement, as their unfortunate history tells. 

Unless a, highly unlikely, day comes in the future when another Irish franchise was to enter the fray, then Giants fans will have to make do with their own unreciprocated dislike for select opposition teams. 

This brings me once again back to the Nottingham Panthers, for whom I, and a close Steelers supporting friend, made a special point of travelling to Belfast to witness take on the Giants.

The Panthers fans themselves, as is usual and expected for such a double header event, crossed the Irish Sea in high numbers. Hoping that the enjoyment they had off-ice in a similar pair of fixtures last season could be replicated, but prayed for quite the opposite fortunes when it came to the on-ice events.

What they received started so well and ended so abysmally.

The first of the two games was a hard fought affair, Nottingham looking to avenge the penalty shots defeat they had suffered to the Giants at home only 7 days previous. Neilsons team were the better of the two, taking advantage of the Giants unexplained lack of physical presence, while also being backstopped by the superb Craig Kowalski.

Like in Nottingham, the panthers held a 2 goal advantage and looked to be in the driving seat. The Giants powerplay was once again disjointed, majority of the advantage not being used and the puck appending a lot of time in the defensive and neutral zones. The penalty kill remained static and tight, no player looking to pressure the puck carrier and few, if any, taking a risk on a forecheck.

Belfast needed a spark and, some little window of opportunity to get back in the game and found it when a tap by Mark Garside squeezed by Kowalski’s left pad and ended up millimetres over the line. This was all was needed. The game was into it’s final minutes, but the Giants had finally awoken and realised they were back with a shout in this game.

The small margins are what turn a game but it’s the tactics that make it entertaining. As such with only a goal in the game,  and just over a minute on the clock, an icing by the Nottingham Panthers pulled play back into their defensive zone. Hockey is a game of risks and rewards. This is no-more better displayed than in this exact situation. The dropping of the puck and subsequent won draw by Josh Prudden for Belfast brought a raised hand from Doug Christansen and a beckoning of Steven Murphy to the bench.

A movement and tactic replicated though-out the world of hockey. A tight losing situation can go one of two ways, a last gasp goal that brings a valuable point and a revived chance of overall victory to the club, or a loss that was in situ before the netminder was pulled. However the reward far outweighs the risk, such is why the netminder for extra outskater tactic is as common in the NHL and Olympic games as it is in the EIHL and recreational hockey.

This time the Giants got lucky. With the extra attacker, as has been the case in their powerplay during this game and many more before, they struggled to cycle the puck. Panthers had their chance in the empty net and missed. The Giants stayed in the game.

With 20 seconds left on the clock referee Tom Darnell made an excellent call on Nottingham’s Rob Belamy, a player who had been the thorn in the Giants side all game, but his slash was too obvious to be ignored. The Giants went 6 on 4 as play was brought back to the right face off circle within the Panthers zone.

While being one of the leagues leading defenseman, Corey Neilson has never displayed a great coaching ability. He continues to fall short in his tactics, decisions and mainly his accountability in the face of adversity. Such an example of poor tactics came at this moment of Fridays game.

Neilson had been thrown out of the face off circle on more than 3 or 4 occasions earlier in the game. His attempts to put Giants face-off specialist Prudden off his game proving futile and subsequently putting increased pressure on the following centreman (usually Matt Myers) to win the draw.

This was to happen again. Neilson went to face off against Prudden while the Giants held a two out-skater advantage, and without fail, in an attempt to rile the Giants centre-man, was thrown out. 

Immense pressure now fell to Myers to win the draw and prevent the Giants capitalising on their personnel advantage. Myers approach in the face off circle, however, was to follow his coach and attempt to push Prudden out with an aim to face a less experienced centre.

Twice he was warned by linesman and referee as he delayed the face off through pushes and slashes. The crowd cried out for the penalty that such events required, and as Myers once again pressed to rile Prudden, at last Darnell had seen enough. His hand correctly was raised and Myers took a seat. Neilsons tactics had backfired, the Giants now held a 3 man advantage with 20 seconds on the clock. The puck dropped, only 11 seconds of that 20 were needed to pass before Simon Lambert was found back stick to level the game. The Odyssey erupted into a cacophony of noise, a fine fight back to take a single point.

It was a single point however that they left with that night. Penalty shots determined the game and despite a fine goal from the returning Colin Hemmingway (though an ill-advised celebration) the Panthers took the 2 points they had hoped would be exclusive.

The inevitable post-mortem by the fans concluded that the despite a late fight back the Giants lacked passion and grit that allowed the Panthers to dictate a majority of the game in the Giants own barn. There was the hope that things would change the next night, with the home team wanting to take at least one win from the weekend and the need to bring fans back on  side by firing quickly from the blocks.

What they got was a lot more besides. Saturdays game saw an implosion of epic proportions from the visitors. Jade Galbraith has blown hot and cold for the Panthers all season, but still remains key to their offence. However, his antics in Rockies the night before, and subsequent violation of a curfew imposed by Neilson saw him dressed but not involved at all in this game. Similar Ian McDonald. As such Lepine and Zion were forced to take a forward role allowing the Giants to exploit the short, overstretched back lines with aplomb.

Giants raced to a 3-0 lead in the first period and despite his superb performance the previous night Kowalski was unable to backstop them to a similar performance thanks to his defence leaving him isolated and out to dry on more than one occasion. So when the score hit 5-0 in the second period it was no surprise that he walked from the game and gave back-up netminder Dan Green the floor. Was this a case of him rating his own performance or just utter frustration at what was going on in front of him, only K-Wall knows for sure, but not something he’d have wanted on his 30th birthday.

The Panthers were shambolic and Neilson’s face off tactics were losing again and again and again. It is amusing that in todays Nottingham Evening Post he sights the Face Off stats as a reason for the loss, and proceeds to admonish any responsibility from his own coaching, once again showing the total lack of accountability that plights his coaching.

The game ended with a superb 7-2 demolition of the visitors and a very frustrated group of Panthers fans left immediately from the arena, not waiting to give any recognition to their teams performance.

The implosion from the Panthers is not to take anything away form the Giants performance, they took advantage of what was in front of them and to be fair some of the special teams were once again clicking for at least two periods. In the third when the Panthers tried to change momentum through muscle. The Odyssey crowd finally thought they were going to see a fight from the largely absent physical game of Mike Hoffman. The resulting fight with Lepine was, unfortunately, a damp squib. One real throw from the Panthers, now lone, tough guy and both hit the deck within a few seconds. The Giants game was then “as you were” (maybe easing off the gas?) with a static PK.. but thankfully at that point the game was won.

And so the Giants came away with 3 points to the Panthers 2, but despite the narrow margins the home team seemed by far the happier. The Panthers fans shell shocked by the result and resulting rumours of Galbraith’s request of a release from his contract, the talk of dressing room bust ups and internal melt downs. The last couple of days have seen questions asked of the organisation, coaching and fans.. while in Belfast there is a renewed hope that a corner has been turned. The older Hemmingway has brought another facet to the game with his return and with Cardiff’s long awaited defeat last night to bring an end to their record breaking winning run… maybe, just maybe this title race isn’t dead yet.

And so we return to rivalries, because sometimes they are a nice thing to have, bringing atmosphere and edge to certain games. But they are not always required to add certain spice to match ups when you have your own disdain for select opposition, whatever the reason. Giants would love to have a proper rivalry to develop, but such a day is far from fruition.